Veteran tourist guide, trainer and local insider Geraldene Lowe-Ismail rattles off the names of historical figures with an easy familiarity.
“Most of these stories are in my head as I have lived through all this history,” says the 75-year-old. “My family lived in the Jewish flats Amber Mansions and Meyer Mansions as they were affordable for my working single mother.
When I came back from boarding school at Christmas, I always seemed to be living in a different apartment and got to hear lots of gossip from our Jewish neighbours." Later, as a tour guide, she would “censor a bit” and weave them in to her commentaries.
Quietly acknowledged and sometimes forgotten for her help in countless coffee table books and film and television productions about Malaya’s WWII history, botanical diversity and architectural heritage, Mrs Lowe-Ismail, known as “Geraldene” in the industry, received the Lifetime Achievement for Outstanding Contribution to Tourism at this year’s Tourism50 Gala Dinner and the Singapore Experience Awards 2014 held last evening.
But any attempt to steer the conversation the “official” way is quickly side tracked by juicier cultural tips for the weekend.
Geraldene is, after all, best known for “getting together the TGA (Tourist Guide Association) 50 years ago at her home, typing out and photocopying a newsletter and conducting guided walks for pioneer tour guides here.
In 1966, she was roped in to develop the first Tourist Guide Training Programme.
Ms Diana Chua, in her 50s,who attended the tourist guide course in the 1980s, says: “We (tourguides) are all in one way or another products of Geraldene. There is a piece of her in every one of us.”
It all began on a Roman holiday
She first stood as a 24-year-old in front of a busload of tourists while holidaying in Rome in 1962.
A Eurasian Singaporean who spoke Malay, Cantonese and Italian, and frequented Chinatown as a child, she was selling Thomas Cook sightseeing packages as a holiday job when it fell short of English-speaking guides.
So she was asked: “When the bus comes, could you do the tours?” It was a time when the aeroplane was surpassing the steamship as a mode of transport and after seven years at the Anglo French Travel air tickets agency, Geraldene had earned a reputation in sales.
Given her early start at Air India, aged 18, she was winning free tours to Cairo, Switzerland and Thailand including the inaugural Japan Airlines flight in 1963, alongside ministers and then-journalist Wee Kim Wee.
“I don’t consider myself as a super salesman,” she says. “But I had empathy for people. And having travelled myself since young, I could anticipate problems that travellers would encounter and advise the clients in advance.”
The Rome experience got her hooked on tour guiding and she began “doing tours” in Jerusalem, Petra and Beirut for family friends who ran a travel agency.
Returning to independent Singapore in 1965, she took tour groups to Cambodia. With her myriad guiding experiences, she was asked in 1966 by Professor George Thompson from the Civil Service Institute at the National University of Singapore to start a Tourist Guide Training Programme.
With lectures on Saturday afternoons and site visits on Sunday mornings, the 50-week course concludes with an oral and written exam.
Look beyond the dollar sign
Her proudest moment, however, is helping to found the Heritage Society, “which consisted of volunteers then”, and was instrumental in the 1988 Draft Master Plan for The Civic & Cultural District.
“She is more than a tour guide,” Ms Chua says.“Geraldene was most concerned that as we developed into a modern society, we weren’t forgetting the old things and the charms of the old trades.”
Says Geraldene: “There are so much history and charm in the old colonial houses and architecture - including their gates and fencing - that are worth saving. If you only see the dollar sign, you’ll tear them down anytime.”
Seeing beyond the dollar sign is a personal practice for Geraldene, who does several tours a year with proceeds for charity.
"Most of these things I did were for the love and passion of it, and I hardly ever got paid,” she says.
As our “time travel” comes to an end, she takes out a little packet of saga seeds and places one into my palm - just as she does at the end of every tour she gives.
“You know the saga seed? One to grow the money in your purse,” she says with a smile, before chiming in the Malay rhyme: “So many sagas make a mayam, so many mayams make a tael, so many taels make a kati.”
A kati is half kilo, she carefully explains. “Taels of silver and gold were even mentioned in the Bible - it is a very ancient measure of weight!” she adds.
Surely, no amount of saga seeds can equal Geraldene’s magnanimity in preserving the real Singapore.